What Is Range of Motion, and Why Is it so Important?

Range of motion is often misunderstood. Learn what it is and how it can help you be a better athlete.

Range of motion.

It's a term that gets thrown around a lot these days, including here on STACK.com, but do you really know what it means?

Let's dive into this popular training topic and explain why range of motion matters for athletes.

What is Range of Motion?

"Range of motion" has two prevalent meanings when used in reference to exercising bodies. Both meanings are innately tied to one another.

The first is the biomedical definition, which Healthline defines as "both the distance a joint can move and the direction in which it can move." There are established ranges of motion for various joints throughout the body which are generally considered "normal." For example, a CDC study found that the average male between the ages of 9 and 19 has a range of motion of 177.8 degrees for shoulder flexion. Joint range of motion typically declines with age and inactivity, but can be increased via flexibility and mobility exercises.

The second use, and the one we'll be mainly focusing on in this article, refers to how much range of motion an exercise requires. Generally speaking, the range of motion of an exercise can be observed by how far the load moves on each rep. Think of a Barbell Shrug versus a Barbell Snatch performed from the floor. The second exercise requires a much wider range of motion, while the first exercise may see the bar move just a few inches. However, the range of motion of an exercise can also be determined by the range of motion of the joints involved. Poor thoracic spine, hip or ankle mobility can limit the range of motion on a Barbell Snatch, for example.

Thoughts on the ideal range of motion during exercise varies depending on your goals and outlook. Bodybuilders may advocate for a shorter range of motion, as it can help increase time under tension and help them bulk up quicker, while Olympic lifters may advocate for a much larger range of motion, as their events require it. A team sport athlete has different goals. Generally, the range of motion for team sport athletes should be the greatest range that the athlete can perform with proper technique and without pain.

Now, let's discuss three reasons why a bigger range of motion is generally considered better for athletes, as well as some exceptions where that might not be the case.

More Flexibility/Mobility

There is a misconception that strength training automatically makes athletes bulky and stiff. However, strength training at a full range of motion is highly effective at increasing flexibility and mobility. Several recent studies have found that strength training can increase range of motion equal to, and in some cases greater than, static stretching. This is something Olympic lifters have known for decades. Many Olympic lifters rarely stretch, but possess incredible mobility because they train their end ranges (the physiological point where the range of motion is as large as the body will safely allow). Everyone wants their workouts to be more efficient. Training with a greater range of motion is strength, flexibility and mobility training, all in one.

More Intense Exercise With Less Weight

As the laws of physics would lead you to expect, it's easier to lift a lot of weight through a short range of motion than it is to lift that same weight through a greater range of motion. But just because you may not be able to lift quite as much weight with that greater range of motion doesn't mean you're not working as hard.

A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that even at 25% lighter loads, individuals who performed exercises for a greater range of motion increased strength and muscular size over the subjects that performed the exercises for a shorter range. A different study found that utilizing a full range of motion in an elbow flexion exercise (likely some variation of Bicep Curl) resulted in greater muscle damage than the same exercise performed with a partial range of motion, even though the latter utilized a load that was 18% heavier. Greater muscle damage, when paired with proper recovery, means better strength and size gains.

To understand how moving lighter loads through a wider range of motion can result in greater gains, consider this scenario. Two athletes of equal height and weight are squatting 200 pounds. The first athlete goes down 13 inches to reach parallel. The second athlete performs a deep squat, lowering down 17 inches. The second lifter was lifting for 8 more inches each rep (four more on the way down, and four more on the way up). In a set, that could add anywhere from 24-80 extra inches of work.

Beyond just the extra inches, those inches are at a point of mechanical disadvantage, forcing the body to work even harder to complete each rep. It makes sense that if they lift the same load, the athlete who went through a greater range would get stronger, but the research shows that even with a significantly lighter load, the greater ROM lifter is still working harder and potentially achieving greater gains.

May Reduce Risk of Injury

I say "may" only because there is not a large body of research to support this exact statement, but in my opinion, it's a clear logical conclusion. There is strong evidence that shows that poor movement mechanics increase the risk of injury. Thus why the Functional Movement Screening is so effective at predicting injury risk.

Lifting through greater ranges of motion with proper lifting mechanics enhances functional movement patterns by increasing the range of motion the individual can control. Passive range of motion, which is the range of motion your joints can achieve while a machine or therapist is doing all the work and you're just lying/sitting there, is great, but it doesn't translate to movement. Lifting through greater ranges requires higher levels of muscle activation and control, which will directly affect movement patterns. The biggest key here is that the exercises are performed correctly, because whatever is done under load is going to be ingrained into your body's movement patterns.

There are many people who believe the deep squat is bad for your knees and that athletes should only perform squats to parallel to reduce the stress on their knees. The deep squat is one of the most foundational human movement patterns, and the idea that it's bad for your knees goes against loads of published research. I could get on my soap box for a long time on this topic, but instead, I will leave you with a quote from a review done by the Center for Sports Performance at Cal State Fullerton on Squat depth. "(Our review) collectively suggests that when compared to parallel squatting, squatting below parallel presents no alterations in quadriceps/hamstring activation, increases glute activation and knee joint stability, and decreases shear forces and ACL/PCL strain."

More Range of Motion Isn't Always Best

Although a greater range of motion is almost always beneficial for athletes (provided the exercise is performed with proper form), there are a few exceptions.

One of them is injury. If an athlete is currently rehabbing an injury, it can be beneficial to adjust the range of motion during training while they work their way back. For example, I had an athlete coming off shoulder surgery who was only able to bend his elbows to 90 degrees while bench pressing. This was a phase in the rehab protocol, but not the end goal of the program. Regaining range of motion is one of the first steps in any rehab protocol. However, many athletes use injuries that occurred years ago as an excuse for shortening their range of motion. While there are certain special exceptions, most athletes who're trying to use an old injury as an excuse for a limited range of motion can achieve a greater one. They simply need to focus on regaining mobility and strength, which should actually decrease their chance of future injury.

Another exception where a shorter range of motion might be OK, at least for a time, is for an athlete with movement pattern limitations. Athletes should never increase their range of motion at the expense of good form. If an athlete cannot maintain proper form at end ranges, the range of motion should be adjusted so they can safely perform the lift. For example, if an athlete is missing flexibility in their hamstring, they may round their back in an RDL. You can shorten the range of motion so that they are able to safely perform the exercise, but the ultimate goal must remain increasing flexibility, strength and mobility so they can continue to move through a greater range of motion.

The third exception is when you're involved in a competitive season. Longer ranges of motion cause greater fatigue by increasing time under tension and muscle damage. This can be very useful during offseason training, where you really want to push your body to achieve adaptations, but many not be as ideal in-season. Reducing the range of motion during in-season training can be a way to reduce fatigue.

A simple example is in the Trap Bar Deadlift. In the offseason, my athletes will use the lower handles, increasing the range of motion by about 4 inches in each direction. When we get to preseason and in-season training, I have the athletes flip it over to the higher handles, decreasing fatigue and allowing them to increase the load in positions more specific to their sport.

Another example is the Clean. In the offseason, I will have my athletes perform a Power Clean from the floor. In the preseason, we will switch to a Hang Clean. In-season, they'll perform a Hang Clean Pull, because it has a greater transfer to jumping with the counter movement, and it reduces the intensity of the movement with the removal of the catch.

There is no one set rule for range of motion. Every athlete is capable of a different range of motion, and the golden rule is to always lift safely and with good form. But if you have the technique to perform a movement with a greater range of motion, and the exercise calls for that, I believe it's worth your time to do so. However, it's also important to realize that there are certain instances where a reduced range of motion may be the better play.

Photo Credit: svetikd/iStock, Nicola Katie/iStock, gorodenkoff/iStock, SteveMcsweeny/iStock, BERKO85/iStock

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Topics: SQUAT | BICEP CURL | RANGE OF MOTION | FLEXIBILITY TRAINING